The new year sees the continuation of “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” tour, one that continues to garner conversation regarding the artist’s methods of inclusion and presentation. Curated by the Brooklyn Museum’s Ms. Tai, the collection visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in September and I return to it now in response to a class discussion concerning curatorial methods. Previously there had been a one-sided debate on the necessary inclusion of music, more specifically the church service of DJing, within the white cube space. This conversation was spurred by analysis of The Beat Goes On at SVA Chelsea Gallery: four listening rooms largely activated by performance but held together by visual, audio and audience invitation. There were obvious drawbacks to this method of curation or as Seph Rodney reviewed “while it was not jarring passing from one space to the next, [the viewer] did have distinct impressions from each one.” Neglecting this feature as well as dismissing the input of queer, Bronx, female, battle of the boroughs type culture, my professor posed the question in so many words, “So, is there any value in these types of exhibits in the gallery space?” This was the only question my presentation received.
This class meeting was followed by a Discussion Board rant on the importance of analyzing Kanye West and Spike Lee’s contemporary contributions within the academic setting, qualifying how they measure up and inevitably surpass the canonical masters they draw inspiration from. Each building upon the work of pioneering conceptualists and performance artists as Adrian Piper and Marlon Riggs:
Another good example is Kanye West. The latest Spike Lee joint, Chiraq enraged a vast amount of POCs largely because the satire and allusion to Greek tragedy was lost on those not focused on the canon, but real tragedy with no comic relief. Yet in using the institution (master’s house) but inverting the methods of image making/curating (master’s tools) so uniquely they undeniably become each’s own, for the master would not create in such a way to show his own flaws.
This time no response. Needless to say as presentations on Wiley’s exhibit were underway, “immersed in vanilla” I opted out of contributing to the discussion.
To “A New Republic”, the exhibit spans almost fifteen years of paintings, sculptures, glass works and process. Invoking the normative, western, art historical canon, Wiley builds upon old master’s methods, infusing the norm with color, Butters, glossed lips, wave caps, iconography of black and brown culture and his own signature. Through street casting Wiley selects individuals and allows them choice in portraiture, doubling the level of authorship awarded the Other bodied. With origins in Harlem, the formative process projects community demographics onto museum walls. Often the disparity between community and donor wants is evident in exhibition programming. Regarding the VMFA’s struggle to reach a more diverse audience, A New Republic becomes a part of this new direction.
The VMFA, a previous employer of my professor, sits adjacent to the United Daughters of Confederacy Museum where misguided Americans assemble weekly to fly their flag of choice in support of Trump’s America. While ultimately a community is not defined by every institution in its backyard, the pervasive presence of confederate relics serve as a gesture in favor of the conservative reality much of Virginia continues to be fraught by. Consequently, prior to the VMFA’s 2011 African Art collection expansion, there was about a two-year discussion about how to broaden its pool of spectators. Having never polled the greater Richmond area until after new acquisitions, the African Art section, although refreshing, was an equally misguided attempt to interest contemporary POC audiences. Still, the inclusion of Wiley’s retrospect, in conjunction with its modern galleries rotating works addressing identity could be considered commendable, albeit necessary steps in stunted growth. Yet the regular audience to Wiley’s show were middle aged, middle to upper class, white people.
Therefore, if an artist’s “work is defined by the viewer’s reaction to it” still one of the largest sources of misplaced confusions is the lack of extensive labels present, per Wiley’s request. Apart from introductory panels, the labels do not define the painting’s subjects. Instead, the pieces’ amplified scale functions as the voice itself. The absence of identifiers forces the viewer to confront the conflict present in Wiley’s images. It is not difficult to spot across the room the Napoleon, here Michael Jackson, the Judith Beheading Holofernes, here a woman of color holding the antithesis white woman’s head. In fact, labels are irrelevant when it comes to the roles assigned to each subject in the work, as a viewer educated in the Western art historical canon could easily identify influences. Rather it is an overt denial and chosen blindness to see the body of the Other in a state of opulence: adorned with illustrious borders, pushed forth by ornamented backdrops and staring down upon their admirers.
“A New Republic” is so much less about this absence and more about forming presence. However this is not a complaint only from Wiley’s show, but on contemporary art concerning identity as a whole. Whether the labels are too dense or too sparse the common denominator remains a resistance, typically in members and donor pools, to accept the subject of the Other figure as authored by the Other artist into the canon.
Ultimately a scavenger hunt connects the VMFA’s permanent collection to Wiley’s exhibit. Facilitated by numbered postcards, the front boasts a work of Wiley’s, his name and the exhibit title while the back holds a numbered depiction within the museum that may serve as the former’s source of inspiration. A New Republic becomes the locus while permanent works become an afterthought. Number 8 on the map couples Napoleon Leading the Army Over The Alps from the Rumors of War series with Edward Troye’s Richard Singleton with “Viley’s Harry, Charles, and Lew. Its 1835 parallel gives prominence to a racehorse, listing the rest of the owner’s possessions, Harry, Charles, and Lew, as afterthoughts while their camo-clad contemporary breaks the back of one of the several versions of white horses on display. This restructuring jettisons the common motif of equestrian paintings to place the male POC figure as equal too but more often underneath beasts. If members of the canon by definition break the mold while simultaneously building upon it, then it is a self-referential practice in which Kehinde Wiley masterfully embodies. The value exceeds the space.